In Your Midst

In the Footsteps of St. Vincent

November 2011

Meet our Vincentians 

The days are long gone when physicians made house calls. Yet there is one organization that still makes home visits. For close to two centuries, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been helping disadvantaged people around the world, one person or family at a time. It always begins when two Vincentians make a personal visit to the home of someone who has asked for help.

The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul dates back to 1833 when it was founded in France by a 23-year old university student, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam. Some of his peers challenged him to show what the Church was doing to alleviate the suffering of Paris’ urban poor. He and five friends responded by starting a group that would make periodic visits to the needy in their homes. They were advised in their efforts by Daughter of Charity, Blessed Rosalie Rendu, who told them, “Be kind and love, for love is your first gift to the poor. They will appreciate your kindness and your love more then all else you can bring to them.”

Many people assume St. Vincent de Paul Society exists only to relieve the sufferings of the poor. In fact, the main purpose of the Society is to cultivate the personal holiness of its members by means of their service to those in need. Vincentians are strongly urged to seek the face of Christ in those they serve, and they hope, in turn, that the people they serve will see Christ when they look back at them.

The Society reached American shores by 1845 and arrived in Seattle 75 years later. On January 28, 1921, the first parish conference at St. James was formed. The cathedral’s oldest outreach ministry, it has flourished ever since.

There are currently 52 St. Vincent de Paul parish conferences and six Thrift Stores operating in King County. When someone needs assistance, he or she calls a central phone number and speaks to a volunteer, who refers the request for help to the parish conference in their neighborhood.

The Cathedral now has two St. Vincent de Paul conferences: the original St. James Conference serves First Hill and Capitol Hill. The Blessed Rosalie Rendu Conference, formed in 1995, serves in Downtown, Pioneer Square and the International District.

Throughout these neighborhoods, Vincentians find substandard housing, chronic unemployment, broken families, and self-defeating behaviors that rob many of hope. While they lack the resources to successfully impact every human need, they try to spend their time, energy and money in ways that are prudent and practical. While dispensing material assistance, they attempt to treat everyone with kindness, courtesy, respect and sincerity.

St. James parishioners have been consistently generous to St. Vincent de Paul. Donations average around $10,000 a month, enabling our two conferences to successfully forestall at least 300 evictions and utility shut-offs every year, while also providing food, furniture and household items to many of our low income neighbors.

All members of St. Vincent de Paul are volunteers. They are retirees, working people and university students, all making visits as their schedules permit. Some current members have been involved for decades. Phil Schlosser, who first became a Vincentian at Marquette University in 1954, joined the St. James conference in 1998. Michelle Ferguson and Christa Galioto started making visits together in 1990. Christa’s husband Tom joined in 1992.

Michele and Christa make visits to 10-20 households every week. Once they made 19 visits on a single day! Asked how they get the spiritual energy to keep going, Michele replies, “I love visiting the people we try to help. I am amazed at how well some people cope and how much faith they have in some incredibly difficult situations. It helps me put my own bad days in perspective when I see their trials. I think most Vincentians feel they often get far more out of the home visit than the person they’re trying to help—I know I do.”

Phil Schlosser also finds the work deepens his spiritual life. “Would that I could somehow repay God for all the graces I’ve received over the years… By serving those who hurt in whatever way and giving of myself to those life sets before me, this ministry is a very practical way of showing my gratitude through what is frequently a quiet ministry of presence.”

Andre de Klaver adds, “It seems to me remarkable many times and it’s an inspiration, too, that in spite of the misery we come across, that so many of those people are hopeful and still smiling and very grateful and still facing life in a very courageous way.”

Current St. James Conference President, Rob Millar, adds:  “There are a number of visits that will always be with you. You get some sense of renewal. I always remember the reaction. Some are subdued, some are ecstatic.”

Last winter a group of students from the Newman Center at Western Washington University accompanied members of the Blessed Rosalie Conference on home visits. One undergraduate had this to say about her experience: “I saw Christ especially in a man whose apartment we went to while working with the St. Vincent de Paul outreach program at St. James Cathedral… The last man we visited was a recovering cocaine addict who was seeking assistance with some rent.  What I learned from this whole encounter is that when we give we are giving more than money. We are giving them love and dignity back. We are sincerely giving not because we have to, or because they deserve it, but because that is what God’s grace is all about.”

During the recent economic downturn, calls to St. Vincent de Paul for assistance have increased. The Cathedral conferences’ ability to help is limited not so much by lack of funds, as by the limited number of Vincentians available to make visits. Both conferences are actively seeking new members.

One sign of hope for the future of the Society is the recent birth of Vincent Christopher Millar on August 12, 2011. Vincent’s parents, Angela Arralde and Rob Millar, chose the name because they met as members of St. Vincent de Paul. The Society’s youngest inquirer ever, Vincent has already attended two meetings in his first two months of life and hasn’t missed Sunday Mass since he came home from the hospital!

Phil Schlosser is a member of the Cathedral Parish and a Vincentian since 1954!
Suzanne Lee is the Pastoral Assistant for Outreach at St. James Cathedral. 

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